For Palestinians, From Hebron to Nablus, Annexation Is Already Here. A Journey Through the West Bank

With the world holding its breath to see what Netanyahu will do on annexation, Haaretz meets Palestinians across the West Bank to hear their divergent views on what the future holds. For many, one thing is certain: It doesn’t matter if you call it occupation or annexation, Palestinian Authority or Palestinian state

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Palestinians walking down a street in the heart of Bethlehem.
Palestinians walking down a street in the heart of Bethlehem.Credit: Mahmoud Illean
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

“I haven’t heard what the Israelis are going to do, and it doesn’t matter to me,” says Arafat Shaludi, arranging the white plastic vats filled to the brim with 20 types of colorful pickled vegetables, outside his stall in the old market of Hebron.

“It won’t change the situation here,” he adds, nodding to the metal netting over the narrow alleyway, dividing the market from the Jewish settlers’ neighborhood overhead. From his vantage point, there’s no difference if the Israeli presence is called “occupation” or “annexation.”

In a week when politicians in both Israel and the Palestinian territories have been holding their breath over the expected announcement by Benjamin Netanyahu concerning the annexation of parts of the West Bank, in the actual places that will be affected by the prime minister’s decision, there seems to be very little anticipation.

Across the West Bank, the reactions of ordinary Palestinians asked about the implications of what has been spoken of as a historic and game-changing move range from apathy to disbelief.

A food vendor in Hebron's old market area. Credit: Mahmoud Illean

The Trump peace plan may have been dead on arrival, with the Palestinian leadership rejecting it in advance and the Netanyahu government interested only in implementing the parts that would see Israel formalizing its control over some 30 percent of the West Bank. But the plan’s vision of a Palestinian state, which is in essence a series of dozens of enclaves and micro-statelets, reflects a reality that already exists on the ground.

The so-called Palestinian Authority, which has now existed for 27 years, isn’t a territorial entity – it’s a local administrative service and police department, in various degrees of control over more or less the same towns and villages, each of them facing different circumstances of geography and economy, and each making their own accommodations with the political situation.

“Palestinian Authority? What Palestinian Authority?” laughs a doctor in Hebron, who asks that his name not be published because “the one thing they do well is make arrests. The PA is an employer and an armed militia, not a government. Here in Hebron, they’re less important because only 30 percent are employed by them. But in Ramallah, it’s three-quarters. So they’re worried about annexation there, because it may lead to the PA disbanding. In Hebron, we don’t rely on the PA. We rely on ourselves.”

The Palestinians are barely heard in the argument over annexation that is taking place mainly between Israeli politicians and their American counterparts. But even when the Palestinians are quoted, it’s usually the usual spokespeople from the PA or activists and employees from a handful of NGOs and think tanks. When you try to go beyond that layer of professionals, you quickly understand there’s no single Palestinian position on annexation. It all depends on where you live and how you make a living.

Hebron: Business as usual

There are two entrances into Hebron, both off Route 60. Each tells a very different story. The one that’s more familiar to journalists, international activists and the type of Diaspora Jew who goes on a tour of the Israeli occupation to salve their conscience begins from the settlement of Kiryat Arba and continues into Hebron’s ancient area, where the tiny Jewish quarters – with their bloated military garrison – have imposed permanent closures on entire neighborhoods, leaving apartments empty and shops shuttered.

Of the few stalls still open in the alleyways off Shuhada Street near the settlement, most of those that don’t sell food make a meager living from selling “Palestinian heritage” to foreign visitors. Photographs of smiling groups of earnest European “solidarity” groups line their walls. But even that stream of income has dried up due to the pandemic.

“The coronavirus killed off conflict tourism,” says one shop owner. “I open now just twice a week to air the place, but I haven’t seen a tourist in four months. Maybe if Israel annexes and there is some political interest, they will come back.”

Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank. If the future of the West Bank is as a series of city-states, Hebron feels the best prepared.Credit: Mahmoud Illean

Then there’s the Hebron you enter from the other side, where you don’t see any Israelis but there is plenty of construction and new office buildings. “Business right now is terrible, but it’s terrible for everyone in the world and for the Israelis as well,” says one local businessman. “But we’re doing our business with the Chinese, and they’re working as usual now.”

Away from the settler enclaves, Hebron runs its own business, its own trading routes with the world. “I used to work mainly with Israelis in construction and renovation,” says Fadi Hirbawi, who owns a number of buildings in the downtown area but prefers to live in the old family home next to the old market. “But if you’re already looking beyond Hebron, nowadays you can trade online and order containers from China, with whatever goods are currently on demand here.

A busy street in Hebron.Credit: Mahmoud Illean

“Annexation won’t change anything in Hebron,” he says. “We’ll just have to continue ignoring the settlers, who are like stupid children who just want to get attention. We can work with the rest of the Israelis. It doesn’t matter if you call it occupation or annexation, Palestinian Authority or Palestinian state.”

Fadi Hirbawi, center. “Annexation won’t change anything in Hebron,” says the businessman.Credit: Mahmoud Illean

Hebron is the largest city in the West Bank, but it’s also the most clannish and, due to being the southernmost, also isolated. If the future of the West Bank is as a series of city-states, Hebron feels the best prepared. In the next Palestinian city, 20 minutes further up Route 60, things are very different.

Bethlehem: Suffering ‘a third intifada’

Bethlehem has only tourism to trade on, and the industry was in a protracted crisis long before COVID-19 arrived. Major investments were made here in hotels that opened in 2000, for a pilgrim-fueled boom that never materialized. Instead, they got the second intifada and the Church of the Nativity siege. The last time any groups of tourists were seen in Bethlehem was Christmas, but 2020 has been “like a third intifada,” says one hotel manager, sitting in one of the few restaurants still open. The most important tourist season, Easter, was a wipeout.

Fifteen years since the second intifada ended, it’s a distant memory for an entire generation of young Palestinians. A crisis their parents dealt with. Now they have one of their own.

The West Bank separation barrier in Bethlehem. “Israeli business is what could save Bethlehem, if only there was no wall,” says one local.Credit: Mahmoud Illean

“I started working here 13 years ago,” says Ala’a Salame, sitting in his family’s restaurant off Manger Square. “This is the worst I remember. We’re doing less than 10 percent of what we were doing before the coronavirus. We haven’t just lost the tourism; we’ve also lost the PA employees who are now afraid to eat out because they don’t know if they’ll have salaries soon, with the threats to close the PA down over annexation.”

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The coronavirus has wiped out tourism to the city. Credit: Mahmoud Illean

Salame blames Netanyahu for that: “He only wants more land.”

But an older generation in the restaurant trade are more optimistic. “The biggest source of income we used to have in Bethlehem was from Israelis,” says one business owner, who asked not to be named because “it’s sensitive.”

Ala’a Salame, right. sitting in his family’s restaurant off Manger Square in Bethlehem.Credit: Mahmoud Illean

He adds: “I want a Palestinian state, like any other Palestinian. But I also remember the time before the first intifada, when Israelis did their shopping here and filled the restaurants every Shabbat. Israeli business is what could save Bethlehem, if only there was no wall.” He tilts his head, like people in Bethlehem do, toward the graffiti-covered separation barrier cutting off the city from Jerusalem. “Some people here are hoping that annexation could lead to one state – even though it seems unlikely now,” he says.

It’s hard to say how prevalent such hopes are among Palestinians. Few, if any, are willing to say such things on the record.

“We haven’t sold a rug for months,” says Assem Barakat, who owns a carpet shop with his brother in the Bethlehem market. “People will need rugs again at some point and we’ll wait. People here don’t close shops that they inherited from their parents, because it’s ours and we have patience. That’s why we’re not worried about annexation. It’s just Netanyahu’s latest crazy idea, but it’s not a solution for anyone – not even the Israelis. We have more patience than the Israelis and we know things will get worse before they get better. We can live out the bad times.”

Assem Barakat at his carpet store in Bethlehem. “We’re not worried about annexation. It’s just Netanyahu’s latest crazy idea, but it’s not a solution for anyone – not even the Israelis.”Credit: Mahmoud Illean

Period of rare calm

Driving along parts of Route 60 – the ancient highway from Be’er Sheva to Nazareth, connecting from north to south all the main towns on the central watershed, the West Bank’s spiky spine – it’s possible, for short stretches, to lose sight of the occupation. Israeli and Palestinian cars overtake each other. There are fewer Israeli military checkpoints and patrols than at any point since the beginning of the first intifada in 1987, with the Israelis having transitioned to “low-signature” electronic surveillance along much of the route.

The large red signs warning Israelis that it’s both dangerous and illegal for them to enter “Area A,” where the PA has security control, can be easily ignored in most places. There are Palestinian security checkpoints here and there within Area A, but right now they’re mainly concerned with trying to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

A group of men playing cards in a West Bank cafe.Credit: Mahmoud Illean

For Israelis, 2019-2020 has been a period of rare calm (even allowing for the pandemic), with Palestinian attacks on Israeli targets at their lowest number for over five years. For Palestinians, however, there’s a constant reminder – in the shape of settlements on hilltops and the occasional Israeli patrol – that whatever freedom of movement they do have can be shut off at any moment.

And then there’s Jerusalem, bisecting Route 60 on Bethlehem’s northern edge. For those with Israeli ID cards and license plates, it’s a quick 15-minute drive along Begin Highway, when it’s not rush hour, to emerge out the other end of the capital, back onto Route 60. For Palestinians, it’s a long, winding and climbing bypass around Jerusalem’s eastern borders, through Abu Dis and Azzariyeh, which at best takes 90 minutes, often much more if the soldiers at the Container checkpoint are taking more time.

Nablus: ‘Occupation deluxe’

After Hizma, Israelis and Palestinians can drive unhindered by roadblocks for nearly an hour, up to Nablus. There are soldiers in observation posts at three places en route, but they’re not holding up traffic. There are advertisements in Arabic along the roadside, alongside posters put up by settlers demanding “full sovereignty” and not the watered-down version being offered by the Trump administration – which some of them fear could lead to a Palestinian state. Even a truncated one.

“We have ‘occupation deluxe’ here,” laughs the owner of a supermarket in Hawara, the town just south of Nablus on Route 60. “Business here has quickly recovered [from the pandemic] because we’re still the place where both Palestinians from all around and Israelis pass through. Nothing is going to change here after annexation, even if it happens, because we’re on the main road and Israel won’t give up Route 60.” If anything, he’s worried about Israelis leaving after a new Hawara bypass is built.

The second biggest city in the West Bank, Nablus prides itself on its cosmopolitan nature.Credit: Mahmoud Illean

Hawara is currently in Area C, meaning under full Israeli control. With the exception of the parts of Hebron under Israeli control, Hawara is the largest Palestinian community in the West Bank living under direct Israeli control. Those who own or work in businesses along Route 60 feel they’re getting the best of both worlds. In a local branch of KFC, where the employees rigorously squeeze disinfectant on every customer’s hands and refuse entry without a face mask, manager Adel al-Auna says: “People here only care about their jobs. We serve everyone, including settlers from Ariel.”

This attitude infuriates other Palestinians. In Nablus, surrounded by piles of Chinese-made CCTV cameras, Muhammad Badawi, who owns a home video surveillance company, fumes. “I have shops throughout the West Bank. I have shipments coming through Ashdod Port all the time and sell to Israelis as well,” he says. “But I can’t stop thinking that if I send one of my sons to one of my other shops, he’s risking his life. I’m afraid, because I can’t forget that on the road there are soldiers who were taught to kill Palestinians.”

The one thing that natives of Nablus, the West Bank’s other major city, seem to share with those in Hebron is contempt for the PA in Ramallah, which they still regard as little more than a village outside of Jerusalem. Even if they’re careful not to criticize him in public, they will remind you that President Mahmoud Abbas hasn’t visited either city in years.

Nablus. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hasn't visited the northern city or the southern city of Hebron in years.Credit: Mahmoud Illean

But that’s where comparisons between Hebron and Nablus end. While Khalilees (from the Arab name for Hebron, al-Khalil) are content to be left alone, fully aware that they’re the butt of Palestinian jokes, Nablusees regard themselves as cosmopolitans, living in the West Bank’s cultural capital with its best restaurants, largest university and a steady stream of visitors, from across the West Bank as well as Arab Israelis.

But some are less sanguine. “Abu Mazen [Abbas] has sold us out to Netanyahu,” says one local trader who asked not to be named. “He’s Israel’s security contractor, and that won’t change if Netanyahu annexes. He’ll find a way to pretend he’s against annexation, and then continue business as usual.”

Nablus, however, doesn’t feel like an angry city. Last week, the PA ordered shops to close after an outbreak of coronavirus cases was detected in one of its suburbs. But this week the market was as busy as ever, with restaurants and narghile cafés back in business.

“No one is going to go abroad this year,” says one restaurant owner. “Even those with money will stay in the West Bank, and that means they’ll come here for the best food.” Some of them are already arriving for early vacations. In an air-conditioned backroom of a bookstore near the market, Fuad al-Hannah, a physical therapist from Ramallah, is catching up with old friends while his “clinic is closed because of the coronavirus.”

A stall in Hebron's old market area.Credit: Mahmoud Illean

Their talk is rarely about politics. “No one knows what Netanyahu is going to do, so why waste time talking about it?” he asks. “Anyway, everyone has a different take. Those who work in Israel hope that more options will be available. Those who work for the PA are worried that Israel will take over and they will lose their standing. And people like me who are self-employed just hope for the best.”

At his surveillance store, Badawi says he doesn’t believe “Netanyahu is going to annex. Why should he? He controls the West Bank already and thinks like a businessman, so he just wanted something to divert Israelis’ attention away from his corruption trial. But now it’s blowing up in his face because he’s created expectations. Either way, it’s nothing to do with the Palestinians.”

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